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The Civility Issue

The wave of attacks against Democratic lawmakers by health care reform opponents should be setting off alarm bells across the country. Since the House of Representatives held its final vote on health reform in late March, more than a dozen House members have been targeted with verbal or physical threats, all apparently related to their support for reform. Several incidents are under FBI investigation. At least 10 House Democrats have received beefed-up security. Yet, somehow, the public seems to be treating it as just another sordid Washington political spat to be followed for a day and then tuned out.

This is bigger than a spat, though. Lawmakers have been targeted with various combinations of death threats; racist, homophobic and antisemitic slurs; spitting; assaults on their offices and, in one case, a potentially deadly attack on the home of a lawmaker’s brother, after a Web site mistakenly posted the sibling’s address. Some of the attacks show clear patterns, including at least six incidents in which bricks were hurled through front windows of congressional or Democratic Party offices. How-to tips for would-be attackers have appeared on the Internet.

This is not a case of disgruntled loners acting out. It is a series of similar actions by impassioned people who are willing to act on their beliefs. Put differently, it is a wave of political violence.

Democrats and Republicans should be calling it by its name. But they won’t. Democrats know they’re being targeted by individuals who’ve been scared to death by the hysterical cartoon version of health care reform — of death panels and Armageddon — that has been put out by congressional Republicans. But Democrats are afraid that if they say so, they’ll be pilloried as partisan cynics.

As for Republicans, they deny their rhetoric has anything to do with the violence. But words have consequences, and health reform opponents’ extreme language is what planted the idea that reform had to be fought at all costs. Republicans need to understand the meaning of incitement, and take responsibility.

They need to recognize that uncivil behavior in the halls of Congress — like that of Rep. Joe Wilson, who yelled “you lie” during a presidential address, and that of Rep. Randy Neugebauer, who shouted “baby killer” (referring to the reform bill, he maintains) during a floor speech by an anti-abortion Democrat — opens the door to even more out-of-bounds behavior elsewhere.

America needs a more reasoned political discourse, one based on fact and not fantasy, on civil exchange and not brick-throwing. But that, like so much else, seems to have become a partisan goal. We can do better.

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